Philadelphia unearthed a key player amid the tanking who is flourishing alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
The Philadelphia 76ers, freed from the confines of their tank, are above .500 a month into the season. There are two (literally) huge reasons for this: Obvious NBA All-Star Joel Embiid and obvious Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons. Embiid has been every bit as dominant as you’d expect based on the 31 games of magic we witnessed last season. Simmons has been a revelation as a 6’10 point guard with elite court vision and superb skills. This has the potential to be a modern Shaq and Penny. Those Magic teams were incredible while they lasted.
But there’s another huge story in Philadelphia fueling this rise from the self-created ashes: It is the miracle of Robert Covington.
The Sixers reportedly reached a contract extension with Covington on Wednesday. The deal will boost Covington’s 2017-18 salary by $15 million using the team’s leftover cap space, and pay the wing $10-12 million in each of the next three seasons, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. The most important upshot is that it keeps a valuable player in Philadelphia as the Sixers rise. The knock-on effect is that it preserves space for a maximum-salary free agent in the 2018 free agency period.
There’s time to process that. What it’s important to appreciate now is that Covington never should have gotten this far given his path.
After a four-year career at Tennessee State with nary a tournament appearance (the C.I.T. doesn’t count, sorry), Covington went undrafted in 2013, the same summer that Sam Hinkie took over the Sixers. He ended up winning a roster spot (and a minimum contract) with the Houston Rockets, playing a grand total of 34 NBA minutes while spending most of the season in the D-League. He won D-League Rookie of the Year for his troubles. The Rockets waived him before the start of the next season to make roster space.
By this point, Hinkie had stripped the Sixers’ roster and his blueprint was laid bare: He would focus on acquiring assets with a priority on high-end draft picks and would cycle through as many prospects as viable to find diamonds in the rough. Winning was not important. In fact, winning was anathema to the focus on acquiring high-end draft picks. The worse the Sixers were, the better their own picks would be. This appeared to fuel Hinkie’s 2014 NBA draft decisions to pick Embiid (who was injured and unlikely to play that season) and Dario Saric (who would not migrate to the NBA for at least one, and likely two years).
In his search for an uncut gem, Hinkie picked up Covington a couple of weeks into the 2014-15 season on the ultra-cheap. Unlike with Houston, Covington received immediate and regular opportunities to play in the NBA. In fact, the 2014 D-League Rookie of the Year hasn’t played a second in that league since signing with the Sixers.
Success was not, however, instant. Covington shot below 40 percent from the field (albeit taking a ton of threes) and the Sixers were a miserable 18-64. The following season, with Embiid missing another campaign due to injury issues and Saric still in Europe, was even more miserable with a 10-72 record. Covington was solid for the Sixers, but being solid for a 10-win team betting on major dice rolls isn’t terribly confidence-inspiring. What’s more, Hinkie resigned toward the end of the season, having been usurped reportedly at the league’s behest. The Process was over.
The Sixers, now run by Bryan Colangelo, picked up the budget option on Covington’s contract. Embiid finally made his debut. Saric finally arrived. The 2016 No. 1 pick, Ben Simmons, missed the season due to injury. But the Sixers finally started to shed the weight of losing in moments, in glimpses. Covington no longer looked like a pleasant minutes-chewer on a dreadful team. He looked like a potential key shooter and defender on a team with at least one star.
At this point, entering 2017-18, the Sixers had Covington on the cheap for one more season. Other defense-first shooters like Andre Roberson were getting paid substantial-but-manageable deals on the market. More importantly, Embiid was fully healthy and Simmons was everything Philadelphia could have dreamed. And here we are. Now Covington is perhaps the third-most important player on a playoff team.
Given how Nerlens Noel’s Sixers tenure and subsequent spell in Dallas have turned out, and given Jahlil Okafor’s low place in the league structure, it’s a miracle that Covington survived The Process in tact. All that losing wears hard, and Covington was at the center of it all. Noel would have been a No. 1 overall pick if not for an injury. Okafor went No. 3 overall. To some extent — an unknowable extent — the intentional low quality of the team around them hobbled their development as NBA players. Not having a decent point guard, having few (if any) scorers to relieve defensive pressure, lacking co-stars to feed off of — this all matters. This all hurts. No one is at their best in a bad, sucking environment. The Processing Sixers were a bad, sucking environment. There’s no way around it.
Covington developed within the darkness, though. He went from a fringe NBA player — a good D-League player, but not worthy of so much as a roster spot on a good team — to a cornerstone of a playoff team amid the intentional losing. That’s amazing! T.J. McConnell is the only other real success story from Hinkie’s quest for unpolished gems, but McConnell was there for less time (arriving in 2015) and has a much smaller impact today. Richaun Holmes remains from Hinkie’s trawling days as well, but sits now at the end of the bench.
Philadelphia has shed its tanking shroud to bask in the brilliance in Embiid and Simmons. Appreciate how incredible it is that Robert Covington is ascending the mount with them. It’s a miracle that Covington made it in the NBA, and, given what we’ve seen from the others it has chewed up, it’s a miracle that he came out of The Process a stronger man.